Although most people are familiar with the concept of a missionary, few are well-versed in what a missionary actually does. Missionaries work to bring the word of Christ to communities all around the world. According to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are an estimated 430,000 missionaries globally. These faithful individuals dedicate significant time and energy to empowering communities worldwide and sharing the Gospel of Christ.
But, what do their tasks include exactly? You may have little knowledge about what missionaries do during their service. Missionaries perform a wide variety of tasks depending on where they serve and their God-given skills. This chapter explains what it means to be a missionary and the work it entails.
The definition of a missionary depends on who you ask. In general, a missionary is someone who travels cross-culturally to spread the Gospel. However, some Catholics consider anyone who shares their faith with others to be a missionary, even if they do not travel abroad. They feel that sharing the Word of God is what makes someone a missionary, whether they do so in their own neighborhood or on the other side of the world. With that said, mission trips usually involve international travel to parts of the world where social issues are most prevalent.
In addition to their evangelism, missionaries also conduct charitable work, helping others. They spread Jesus’ love by making good use of their talents, training and skills. Missionaries can have a wide range of vocations. For example, they can be teachers, doctors, childcare workers, engineers or construction workers. God gives missionaries their skills so they can make a difference wherever they serve.
The word “missionary” derives from a translation of the Greek word “apostole,” which means “a sending.” As Christians, we first learn about missionary work in the scripture. Jesus sent his apostles to “proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), and they “went forth and preached everywhere” (Mark 16:20).
Like the first missionaries, today’s missionaries are also dedicated to fulfilling the Great Commission by sharing their faith and providing service to the Lord’s children. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when missionary work began in the world, but if you look back in history, you’ll see that Apostle Paul began his first missionary journey around A.D. 46.
Although you won’t find the English term “missionary” in the Bible, you will see that Jesus instructs his apostles to “make disciples of all nations” in the book of Matthew. The command to spread the faith throughout the world is part of the Great Commission, which is found in Matthew 28:16-20. The Great Commission is the basis for all evangelicism (change to evangelism) — Christians work to achieve the will of Jesus by spreading his message of love through their communities and beyond.
Today’s missionaries continue Jesus’ assignment to his apostles by spreading the Word of God throughout the world. In the Commissioning of the Disciples, Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
To make disciples means to make followers of Jesus through service, love and relationship-building. In that way, modern-day missionaries do the work Jesus commanded during the Great Commission by offering their service and love to the people of the world.
Missionaries take on various duties depending on where they serve. Overall, missionaries aim to accomplish three main goals:
Typically, missionaries spread the Gospel while partnering with communities to meet a need. Their work may include starting Catholic education programs abroad or providing medical care. A missionary’s tasks depend on where they’re going and their specific skills. For example, a missionary with a teaching background might work as a teacher in a foreign country. A missionary who has construction experience might help build houses in an impoverished area. Ultimately, missionaries work to uplift a community, lend a helping hand and bring people closer to the Lord.
Part of being a missionary is loving others and helping ensure their spiritual, physical, mental and emotional needs are met. They work in line with the directives laid out in the Bible — “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Missionaries work to spread light on poverty and bring hope to the darkness. They pray for those they serve. No matter how a missionary contributes their talents to a particular place, their primary calling is to help people know Jesus and see God’s plan.
Beyond the work they provide to communities, such as building houses, educating children and providing medical care, missionaries are important because they spread the Gospel throughout the world. Over 3 billion people in the world have never heard of Jesus. By teaching people about Jesus and his love for God and humanity, missionaries may help communities get on a path of growth and hope.
Some missionaries earn pay while others do not — it depends on where and how they serve. Those who serve a mission agency or church denomination may get paid a salary for their services. Others receive a regular allowance for living expenses. In some cases, missionaries have to raise their own funds to perform their duties and sustain themselves. They might ask family, friends and churches for financial support. They rely on others’ donations to live and work.
Becoming a missionary takes dedication and passion. Many missionaries get started by serving their home church and transition to larger projects later. They might join mission trips with a group of others in their home church. If you’re interested in becoming a missionary, your church is an excellent place to start. You may find missionary work through local churches or a mission agency.
To become a missionary, you must be willing to work hard, often for little to no compensation. The most critical steps on the journey to becoming a missionary are continual prayer and reflection with Christ. Those who are considering pursuing missionary work should maintain a strong relationship with God and their faith.
Many missionaries partner with churches and serve communities alongside groups of church members. Partnering with a church means collaborating with the church to meet a common goal. This partnership may also involve community organizations and charities. A partner church can help with mission advancement and provide mission resources.
For example, churches and community organizations may share a vision to ensure children have access to clean drinking water. In many parts of the world, including Ndekesha in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, children have to travel several kilometers each day to fetch water. Doing so takes up hours of each day and threatens their health and safety.
Missionaries work to resolve such issues around the world. In this village, missionaries focus on creating a borehole to provide safe drinking water to children. They also provide children with a Christian education, inviting Jesus into their hearts and introducing them to the sacraments. In that way, missionaries in Ndekesha help to provide for children’s physical and spiritual needs. By working together in Jesus’ name, missionaries can make a real difference in the world.
Throughout the world, missionaries work to improve living conditions and spread the Word of God. They continue the work of the Great Commission, following Jesus’ directive to make disciples of all nations. As they help fulfill the physical and educational needs of a community, they also introduce people to the love of Jesus and bring communities closer to God.
If you’re interested in supporting missionary work or becoming a missionary, you can take several routes to achieve your goals. Consider contacting your local church to see how you can get involved. Or, reach out to us at Catholic World Mission to learn how you can support projects worldwide. Missionary projects always require financial support. Connect with us to learn how you can make a difference.